Chapter 30 - After the Fall: The Western World in a Global Age, Since 1985

Western Culture Today

FOCUS QUESTION: What major Western cultural trends have emerged since 1985?

Western culture has expanded to most parts of the world, although some societies see it as a challenge to their own culture and national identity. At the same time, other societies are also strongly influencing Western cultural expressions, making recent Western culture a reflection of the evolving global response to the rapid changes in human society today.

Varieties of Religious Life

Despite the attempt to revive religion after World War II, church attendance in Europe and the United States declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of growing secular attitudes. Yet even though the numbers of regular churchgoers in established Protestant and Catholic churches continued to decline, the number of fundamentalist churches and churchgoers has been growing, especially in the United States.

Fundamentalism was originally a movement within Protestantism that arose early in the twentieth century. Its goal was to maintain a strict traditional interpretation of the Bible and the Christian faith, especially in opposition to the theory of Darwinian evolution and secularism. In the 1980s and 1990s, fundamentalists became involved in a struggle against so-called secular humanism, godless communism, legalized abortion, and homosexuality. Especially in the United States, fundamentalists organized politically to elect candidates who supported their views. This so-called Christian right played an influential role in electing both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the presidency.

THE GROWTH OF ISLAM Fundamentalism, however, is not unique to Protestantism. In Islam, the term fundamentalism is used to refer to a return to traditional Islamic values, especially in opposition to a perceived weakening of moral values due to the corrupting influence of Western ideas and practices. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the term was also applied to militant Islamic movements, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, who favored militant action against Western influence.

Despite the wariness of Islamic radicalism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Islam is growing in both Europe and the United States, thanks primarily to the migration of people from Muslim countries. As Muslim communities became established in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and Spain during the 1980s and 1990s, they built mosques for religious worship and religious education. In the United States, the states of California and New York each have more than two hundred mosques.

POPE JOHN PAUL II AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH Although changes have also occurred in the Catholic Church, much of its history in the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by the charismatic Pope John Paul II (1920-2005). Karol Wojtyla (KAH-rul voy-TEE-wah), who had been the archbishop of Krakow in Poland before his elevation to the papacy in 1978, was the first non-Italian to be elected pope since the sixteenth century. Although he alienated a number of people by reasserting traditional Catholic teaching on such issues as birth control, women in the priesthood, and clerical celibacy, John Paul’s numerous travels around the world helped strengthen the Catholic Church throughout the non-Western world. A strong believer in social justice, John Paul was a powerful figure in reminding Europeans of their spiritual heritage and the need to temper the pursuit of materialism with spiritual concerns. He also condemned nuclear weapons and constantly reminded leaders and laity of their obligations to prevent war.

The global nature of the Catholic Church became apparent on March 13, 2013, with the election of a new pope. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (b. 1936), the archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the first Latin American as well as the first non-European since the eighth century to be elected pope. He chose to be called Pope Francis in honor of the humble Saint Francis of Assisi (see Chapter 10).

Art and Music in the Age of Commerce: The 1980s and 1990s

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the art and music industries increasingly adopted the techniques of marketing and advertising. With large sums of money invested in artists and musicians, pressure mounted to achieve critical and commercial success. Negotiating the distinction between art and popular culture was essential since many equated merit with sales or economic value.

THE VISUAL ARTS In the art world, Neo-Expressionism reached its zenith in the mid-1980s. The economic boom and free spending of the Reagan years contributed to a thriving art scene in the United States. Neo-Expressionist artists like Anselm Kiefer (AN-selm KEEF-uhr) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (ZHAHN-mee-SHELL BAHS-kwee-aht) (1960-1988) became increasingly popular as the art market soared.

Born in Germany in 1945, Kiefer combines aspects of Abstract Expressionism, collage, and German Expressionism to create works that are stark and haunting. His works in the 1980s became a meditation on German history, especially the horrors of Nazism. Kiefer hoped that a portrayal of Germany’s atrocities in such works as Departure from Egypt and Nigredo could free Germans from their past and bring some good out of evil.

Another example of Neo-Expressionism can be seen in the work of Basquiat. The son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants, Basquiat first made his name as a graffiti artist in New York City and became an overnight success during the 1980s art market boom.

While some critics dismissed Basquiat’s paintings as a fad, other artists were criticized for employing controversy to market their art. Moreover, artists whose works were deemed to be inappropriate also had to contend with censorship. Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe became the focal point of debate in the mid-1980s because they received financial aid from a U.S. government agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Mapplethorpe was known for his portraits of male nudes that of ten featured homoerotic imagery, while Serrano created photographs of objects submerged in bodily fluids, including a crucifix immersed in urine. As a result of the controversy, the U.S. Congress reduced the budget of the NEA for supporting indecency.

MUSIC As artists and musicians became increasingly disenchanted with the excesses of the Reagan era, they also began to question the consumerism that had seemingly homogenized popular culture. The emergence of “grunge” music in the early 1990s reflected this attitude, as rock bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam rejected the materialism of the previous decade. Employing distortion and amplified feedback in their music, grunge artists of ten sang of disillusion and angst. Rather than conforming to the mass-produced norms of the fashion industry, these musicians typically wore ripped jeans and weathered flannel attire to protest the excesses of capitalism.

Hip-hop continued to gain popularity. In the early 1990s, rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg created “gangsta rap,” an offshoot of hip-hop with raw lyrics praising violence, drugs, and promiscuous sex. By the late 1990s, teen and preteen consumers had steered the music industry back to pop music, generating millions of dollars of sales in the process. Many pop acts became successful as music turned away from grunge and gangsta rap. Instead, musicians and audiences favored the lighthearted music that made Ricky Martin and Britney Spears famous. Drawing from rhythm and blues, Latin music, and hip-hop, these artists used catchy dance beats and extravagant music videos to market their work.

The Digital Age

FOCUS QUESTION: What is the Digital Age, and what are its products, results, and dangers?

Since the invention of the microprocessor in 1971, the capabilities of computers have continued to grow, resulting in today’s “Information” or “Digital Age.” Beginning in the 1980s, companies like Apple and Microsoft competed to create more powerful computers and software. By the 1990s, the booming technology industry had made Microsoft founder Bill Gates the richest man in the world. Much of this success was due to several innovations that made computers essential for communication, information, and entertainment.

The Technological World

The advent of electronic mail, or e-mail, in the mid-1990s transformed the way that people communicate. As the capacity of computers to transmit data increased, e-mail messages could carry document and image attachments, making them a workable and speedier alternative to “snail mail,” as conventional postal mail came to be called. Perhaps even more transformative was the Internet, a network of smaller, interlinking Web pages with sites devoted to news, commerce, entertainment, and academic scholarship. At first, websites were limited to text-based documents, but as computer processors became more powerful, video and music were added.

As Web capabilities increased, new forms of communication began to emerge with Twitter, a communications platform that allows people to send instant updates from their cell phones to their friends; Facebook, a social networking site; and YouTube, a video site that now is used for President Obama’s weekly radio addresses.

By the early 2000s, the Internet had become a part of everyday life for the Western world. These new forms of communication have allowed for greater access to information and people in a short period. Nevertheless, some have argued that communication by means of the computer results in a lack of social interaction. Others question the accuracy of much of the information available on the Web.

Advances in telecommunications led to cellular or mobile phones. Though cellular phones existed in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not until the digital components of these devices were reduced in size in the 1990s that cell phones became truly portable. Cell phones have since become enormously important, and not just for communication. Indeed, some nations became financially dependent on their sales for economic growth. The ubiquity of cell phones and their ability to transfer data electronically have made text messaging a global communications craze. Text and instant messaging have revolutionized written language, as shorthand script has replaced complete sentences for the purposes of relaying brief messages.

In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. This pocket-sized digital music player has revolutionized the music industry, as downloading music from the Internet has surpassed the purchasing of albums from record stores. In April 2007, Apple sold its 100 millionth iPod, an indication of the iPod’s status as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Apple has since expanded its digital products with the addition of the iPhone and iPad. Introduced in 2010, the iPad, a small tablet computer with a touch screen, had reached sales of 67 million by 2012, far surpassing sales of any Apple data processing computer.

Music and Art in the Digital Age

Whereas the iPod altered the way in which we listen to, store, and access music, innovations in digital technology have changed the sound and production of music. In the late-1990s, musicians such as Moby and Fatboy Slim became internationally famous for creating music layered with synthesizers, distorted guitars, and simulated drumbeats. These artists sampled earlier soul music to create albums and film scores.

Many visual artists have also adopted digital effects in producing artworks that fuse photography, sculpture, and cinema. Bill Viola (b. 1951) was one of the first artists to exclusively employ video in his exhibits. By projecting films in a gallery space, Viola created powerful sensory experiences. Using allusions to rebirth and mysticism, he evoked mystical sensations, contrasting light, sound, and focus with techniques of slow motion and editing.

VIDEO GAMES While record sales have struggled worldwide, the video game industry has skyrocketed. In 2007, it was projected that global sales of video games would exceed those of the music industry. By 20ll, estimated global sales had reached $65 billion. With faster data processors fueling enhanced graphics in such video game consoles as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, higher levels of realism have been developed. Despite the popularity of video games, many questions have arisen about their role in childhood obesity as well as neurological disorders. In June 2007, the American Medical Association heard testimony concerning video game addiction. Though video game manufacturers reject the claim, some psychologists fear that learning disabilities and dependency can result from excessive gaming.

FILM: FANTASY AND EPICS The films, video games, and literature of the late 1990s and early 2000s made fantasy and historical epics internationally popular. The successful adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter series are examples of how mythology, magic, and medieval fantasies appeal to contemporary sensibilities. At the heart of these epic motion pictures, Troy and Gladiator included, is a mythical struggle between good and evil that is governed by a moral sense of right and wrong, love, and companionship. Yet these romanticized tales also featured non-Western cultures as Japanese anime and martial arts films increased in worldwide popularity. The computer animation and digitized special effects of these movies reflect the impact of computers on the film industry as it too enters the Digital Age.

Reality in the Digital Age

Advances in communication and information during the Digital Age have led many to believe that world cultures are becoming increasingly interdependent and homogenized. Many contemporary artists have questioned the effects of the computer age on identity and material reality. According to some, the era of virtual reality, or what one French intellectual has termed “hyperreality,” has displaced cultural uniqueness and bodily presence.

THE BODY AND IDENTITY IN CONTEMPORARY ART By focusing on bodily experience and cultural norms, contemporary artists have attempted to restore some of what has been lost in the Digital Age. Kiki Smith (b. 1954), an American artist born in Germany, creates sculptures of the human body that of ten focus on anatomical processes. These works, commonly made of wax or plaster, question the politics surrounding the body, including AIDS and domestic abuse, while reconnecting to bodily experiences. Contemporary artists also continue to explore the interaction between the Western and non-Western world, particularly the multiculturalism generated by global migrations (see “The Social Challenges of Globalization” later in this chapter). For example, the art of Yinka Shonibare (YEEN-kuh SHOW-nih-bar-eh) (b. 1962), who was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now resides in England, creates works that investigate the notion of hybrid identity. This is evident in his work, How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Gentlemen), which depicts European Victorian figures dressed in Dutch wax cloth.

Next Reading: 30-7 Toward a Global Civilization: New Challenges and Hopes